Kamaliya Zahoor, pop star and Ukraine’s ‘Lady Gaga’, is one of the millions of people whose lives have changed since the start of the war. But Kamaliya Zahoor is different from the millions of refugee Ukrainians forced to flee their country: She is waging her war against Putin from her mansion in London’s most luxurious neighborhood…
At four o’clock in the morning on February 24, Ukrainian actress and pop star Kamaliya Zahoor didn’t know if she was dreaming or if her bedroom windows were really shaking. Like most Ukrainians in and around Kiev, she woke up one nightmarish morning to the reality that her country was under Russian occupation.
What happened to Kamaliya Zahoor and her husband, whose life in Kiev was all Bentleys, private jets and Kardashian-style reality shows? Let’s find out together.
When her friends told her that the city was under attack, she didn’t think it was possible. It was only now beginning to make sense in her mind that her husband had, in a very sensible move, flown away a few days earlier with their 8-year-old twins.
EVERYONE LAUGHED WHEN HE SAID THE RUSSIANS WOULD COME
All his friends had laughed at the idea of a Russian invasion. But now they were wrong and Mr. Zahoor was right.
No matter what anyone said, they had a home in London and children to protect. That morning, like so many others, Kamaliya watched live as missiles rained down on Ukraine and ran and hid in the basement.
Five months on from those terrifying moments, Kamaliya Zahoor and Mohammad Zahoor, a British steel billionaire of Pakistani origin, speak candidly to the Telegraph. The interview takes place at the couple’s mansion in Hampstead, London’s most luxurious neighborhood.
Kamaliya’s husband and the steel billionaire, whom everyone calls simply Zahoor, is aware that the mansion looks a bit extravagant, but says that he has owned it since 1996 and cannot change it now.
SHE WANTED TO BE LIKE LADY GAGA
In another interview a few years ago, the couple explained that they were engaged in what they called ‘Project Kamaliya’. The project went something like this:
‘retire Lady Gaga, raise Kamaliya’s profile as a singer to global levels, organize a campaign to find the best songwriters using her voice and checkbook, reach out to music producers and video directors…’
The couple realized some, but not all, of these plans. Kamaliya Zahoor became one of her country’s most famous singers and one of its most frequent television stars.
Thanks to Zahoor’s wealth, he has spent 60,000 pounds in one shopping spree, is rumored to bathe only in champagne, has expensive gold wallpaper in his Kiev home, Bentleys at the gates and horses in the stables, private jets and bodyguards to take him and his wife wherever he wants. Not to forget his nannies and make-up artists.
CHAMPAGNE BATHS, PRIVATE JETS AND HORSES IN THE BARN
“Today it’s not about luxury, it’s too much to talk about luxury when eight million people in Ukraine are out of their homes,” Zahoor says as his wife keeps journalists waiting for an interview and her makeup takes hours to apply. For us it’s not about any luxury anymore.”
It sounds strange to say this while standing in a house worth millions of dollars. But there is a reason for that.
For days, in the basement of their Kiev home, Kamaliya did what he could. He broadcast live, made phone calls, tried to tell his fans and family in Russia what was happening in Ukraine. They didn’t believe her. They said it was propaganda. His own family in Moscow told him that he would soon rid their streets of Nazis and that one day they would all live happily together.
“As things got worse, as the paratroopers came to Ukraine, I told Kamaliya that she had to escape. I told her she couldn’t do it in the basement, that we could help her from here to London. One day they will come, they will catch you and they will kill you. But she wanted to stay. He wanted to fight.”
FIRST WANTED TO STAY, THEN FLED FOR HER CHILDREN
Kamaliya changed her mind a few days later when she heard her twins Arabella and Mirabella crying on the phone. She jumped in the car with her newborn baby and a friend with four children under the age of 10. They were carrying only two suitcases with very few valuables in case of looters.
Their journey to the Polish border, which would normally take six hours, took four days.
Kamaliya saw the rockets destroying bridges and the desperation of the people. He started to help as much as he could. He started driving people to the borders.
“My wife took the children, she took them to a border,” says Zahoor. “She took some to the Hungarian border. Then she left some young girls at the Romanian border.”
Kamaliya met her husband in Budapest. And from there they went to London.
There are now 16 Ukrainian refugees upstairs in their Hampstead flat. Zahoor says: “Most of them are people we know. Friends, relatives, but also a few Ukrainian women we sponsor. There is no more space in the house. We gave all our rooms to whoever came. People even sleep on the sofas. Me, Kamaliya and the children all sleep together in one room.”
THEY FILLED THEIR HOMES WITH UKRAINIAN REFUGEES
‘We have to do what we can,’ Zahoor says at one point, and is reminded that this is all very different from the days of champagne baths:
“Everyone always thought Kamaliya was extravagant, extravagant, pretentious. But time has revealed that she is very strong. It changed when Russia took over part of our country in 2014. Before that, she often traveled to Russia, appeared on TV in Russia, gave concerts in Russia. When this happened, many artists moved out of Ukraine. He was in London, but he came back to Ukraine. He helped feed the people. He helped fix the sidewalks.”
Zahoor goes on to describe her husband:
“He took bricks and repaired Kiev. After that, he was the only one who stopped going to Russia. No concerts, no performances, no TV… And since February 24 he stopped speaking Russian in protest. Now he speaks only Ukrainian.”
OWN SOLDIER’S SON, WIFE STEEL BILLIONAIRE
Nataliia Shmarenkova was born into a military family in a region of Eastern Siberia long before she became Kamaliya. Zahoor grew up the son of Pakistan’s auditor general and won a scholarship to go there after starting engineering school around the time Pakistan began building a steel mill with the Soviet Union.
At the age of 19, he moved to Ukraine. When he then started his own steel business, things went quite well. Just before the 2008 financial collapse, he sold his company for $1 billion. He diversified his portfolio into sectors such as commercial real estate. He bought the Kyiv Post and became a media figure in Ukraine (Zahoor also sold the newspaper in 2018 for $3.5 million)
Even after the war began, some said that the famous businessman should have bought fighter jets for Ukraine.
Eventually, among other fundraising efforts, Zahoor contacted senior officials in Pakistan and helped send four C-130 planes filled with humanitarian aid. Zelenski is said to be grateful for this support.
THEY APPEARED ON STAGE TOGETHER WITH ZELENSKY
Kamaliya laughs and says she knows Zelensky and even performed with him: “We performed for the people who attacked us, in front of them.”
In the early 2000s, the two performed with Zelensky in a show organized for the Kremlin; Kamaliya sang the songs and it was Zelensky’s job to make the audience laugh.
“Zelensky loves Zahoor,” she says proudly. “Whenever he sees us backstage, he always kisses us and takes selfies with Zahoor. We never imagined he would become President!”
Kamaliya and Zahoor continue to do their best, using whatever influence they have. The war has been bad for Zahoor’s business. Their plastic goods production is running at 40 percent capacity. Commercial real estate occupancy rates have dropped from 100 percent to 30 percent. Trading activities are at a standstill. Their losses are roughly 5 million dollars a month.”
WAR DISRUPTED THEIR BUSINESS
They have stopped all trade with Russia. But they are busy. There are fundraising concerts planned in Germany and Poland for the refugees there, and Kamaliya works with a children’s heart center in Kiev. Through her foundation, Kamaliya raises money for new equipment every year.
Kamaliya is outraged that the courage of her people is being belittled, saying she will lose her presidency if Zelenski gives her an inch of land.
He vows that Ukrainians will fight to the last man and continue to stop the tanks, even with their bare hands, adding:
“They are fighting for all of us.”
SHE TOLD THE STORY IN TEARS
“This world… should be full of flowers. With smiles. We should be close to each other and help each other.” Her eyes fill with tears… “I want to thank England. You are a very close country. Our people are very… thank you.”
She says that in the midst of all her fears she thinks of her horses in Buça. “Russian soldiers occupied Buça. My horses were in a stable there. They killed my horses. We found others in the nearby forest, but why did they kill my horses?”
Now she begins to cry, “I understand that you kill Ukrainian people because you hate us. For some reason you hate us. But what did the animals do to you? Bullet-riddled dogs lying in the street. Cats. Animals. I can’t understand that.”
His mother stayed in Ukraine. His father will not move to a safer area. He ends the interview with these words:
“I need to be in Ukraine. I want to talk to people [there]. I… want to breathe the air. Now my air is dirty, but it is still my air.”